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Posted 29 Sep 2021

Active Allyship Requires Change: “Demanding More,” A Book By Sheree Atcheson

As a professional in the diversity and inclusion sphere I read a lot of books looking to draw from the experiences of others in the hope of understanding a wide variety of perspectives. Recently I have read Demanding More by Sheree Atcheson and I wanted to share with you some of the key points that really spoke to me from her book.

As a professional if you are ready to move away from performative acts of allyship and really start digging into the hard and often personal work that comes with being a diverse and inclusive business then Atchesons’ book provides an excellent roadmap to guide you through. She touches on all the main concepts and theories that you will need to understand and adds personal experiences and thought exercises throughout to bring depth to the material.

Today I would like to focus on a couple of specific points that really resonate for across multiple “categories,” which show how the neurodiversity community can really learn from the work of feminists, anti-racism and critical race theory.

Exclusive Inclusion

The term “exclusive inclusion” refers to a situation where the inclusion that is being offered is conditional and still excludes certain types of people. White feminism for example, or supporting LGBTQIA+ rights while actively excluding trans people. This practice is sadly very common especially in the workplace. In Demanding More, Atcheson talks about the relevance of intersectionality a term coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. She defines it as “the overlapping and connected nature of personal characteristics, such as ethnicity, race, socio-economic background, etc. This connected nature creates an overlapped and connected experience of discrimination.”

She gives the example of a workplace in which women are not discriminated against because there are multiple white women at high levels of the company, likewise Black people are not discriminated against because there are multiple Black men at the top of the company. As a result of these observations no one will accept that Black women may be disadvantaged in this scenario despite the fact that they are notably not represented at senior levels. In this example it is the intersectional identity of being both Black and female that is leading to exclusion. When we compartmentalize and refuse to acknowledge the overlap, we are excluding and erasing people’s experiences.

In the disability community exclusive inclusion applies not only to our intersectional identities but also to our conditions. For example, disability inclusion efforts are more likely to lead to the recruitment of disabled white cis men with a reasonable degree of economic privilege. They are also more likely to recruit Autistic people than someone with Tourette Syndrome.

As you make your way through your diversity and inclusion work it’s important to remember that true inclusion doesn’t mean looking for the person that you are most comfortable with, someone who ticks a box but still fits in neatly to company culture. Change requires you to challenge yourself, this means having people around who are not like you and being open to the fresh perspective that this diversity will bring.

Tone Policing

Another term that is used widely in anti-racism and feminism but also has strong resonance in the neurodiversity community is “tone policing”.

Tone policing is a tool used against women, Black people and people of color to undermine and devalue their statements. It is when someone chooses to focus on the way in which you have communicated a message meaning they disregard the content of what has been said. Requiring marginalized people to remain calm and polite at all times despite provocation is a form of control.

In the neurodivergent community we have varying styles of communication and are often misinterpreted by neurotypical people as being angry or impolite, other times we may be incorrectly perceived as bored or disinterested. For us the societal focus remains on the idea that we should learn to communicate in a more typical way because we have a kind of social deficit that needs correcting. In reality it would be more equitable if mainstream thinking could shift in its understanding that there is only one correct way to communicate.

Again, this brings us back to active allyship requiring fresh perspective and a willingness to change ingrained rules. Have you ever refused to listen to someone perspective because you felt that their language was too direct or aggressive? In these moments it is wise to take a step back and consider not only the content of what they are saying to you, but also if the directness is actually crossing a line or is it your perception? If the same words were delivered to you by someone else would you interpret them in the same way? This is an opportunity to examine any inherent bias you may have. Would your reaction be the same if they were giving you eye contact and smiling? Is it appropriate for them to be angry and upset? Recent research has shown that anger is correlated with innocence and being unjustly accused, rather than guilt. An opportunity to consider ableism and social expectations. Pay attention to your own defensiveness in these moments.

Challenge Yourself To Change

Demanding More is a call to action, a manual for challenging yourself to do more. This kind of work can be time consuming and sometimes emotionally exhausting. It is easy to decide that one seminar a year and a social media post is enough. Performative allyship is ubiquitous in the corporate world and serves only to ease the conscience as we sink back into comfort and privilege. If you have come so far as to accept that greater diversity, inclusion and equity are needed then you must also accept that this will require effort, discomfort and change. You cannot become more inclusive while clinging to all that feels familiar and safe, which might feel like a risk but is it actually an opportunity.

My own anti-racism journey so far has created deep contemplation in the same vein as when I was learning counselling and coaching twenty years ago. It’s cathartic and human centered. The win for inclusivity is the positive change, becoming stronger together, more peaceful through growth and mutual acceptance. Becoming an ally to others in a different “category” to us (whatever that be) is, and was always, about changing ourselves.

Read more of Nancy’s Forbes Blog here.